When my editor, Kim Rubenstein, asked me to write a story for people who wish to check out the Elwha River restoration, it seemed like a good idea. After playing the role of tourist for a day, I’m convinced that many visitors will have a good time learning about this once-in-a-lifetime event.
I wrote a story for Sunday’s Kitsap Sun that describes where you can go to see the river and various features of the restoration project. The area map we created for the newspaper can be downloaded and taken with you. Click here for map (PDF 438 kb).
Learning about the natural features of the Elwha River watershed is an important part of the experience. Before you leave home, I recommend that you view a series of “webisodes” on the Olympic National Park website. I’m told these videos by Wings Over Watersheds are a sampling of what will eventually become a longer video production.
A more complete story about the Elwha Restoration Project, including a history of the two dams, has been captured in a new book by Seattle Times reporter Linda Mapes. I wrote a review of her book, “Elwha: A River Reborn,” to accompany my visitor’s guide to the area.
I think kids and adults alike will enjoy playing around with a model of Glines Canyon at Feiro Marine Life Center, where one can pull out the dam and watch the sediment move downstream.
Randall Walz, director of education and volunteers at the center, told me about misconceptions that some people have. Many believe that the sediment in the Elwha moved downstream and piled up behind the dams, he said. Instead, most of the sediment was dropped off in the upper portion of the two reservoirs, where the water slowed down as it entered the lakes.
The restoration work included digging a pilot channel through the Lake Mills delta to form a new channel and guide the river through the trapped sediment. The goal is not to move the sediment downstream as quickly as possible, Walz said, but rather to stabilize the deltas and allow them to erode over a longer period of time.
If you want to see change, be sure to visit the mouth of the Elwha River, which you reach from a dike trail at the end of Place Road. Wherever you see sand, that’s change, because there was no sand here before, said Anne Shaffer of the Coastal Watershed Institute.
The sandy habitat will better support the migration of juvenile salmon and provide spawning areas for sandlance, a forage fish. The decline of the rocky habitat could mean the end of tall kelp, but researchers hope the new sandy habitat will support the growth of eelgrass and a burgeoning community of diverse plants and animals. Check out the story I wrote in March, following a conference on the nearshore changes taking place.
I have to say there’s not a lot of excitement to behold in the upper portions of the two reservoirs unless you remember what it was like when the lakes were in place or can visualize the enormity of the change. The river now carves its way through a dry lake bed, where one can see large old-growth stumps, which were either under water or buried by sediment. Plants are coming back, some placed there by restoration workers, others by natural processes.
With or without the dams, one can enjoy the escape into this natural area, particularly as one moves into the higher trails in Olympic National Park. Be sure to take time to enjoy the natural surroundings, even if you need to cut out parts of your planned trip.
If you want to observe the changes over time, I suggest you find a vantage point and take a picture during your visit. When you return the next time, take another picture for comparison. The heavy gravel and silt seems fairly inhospitable at the moment. But if you return again and again, I expect you’ll be amazed at the transformation taking place over the next few years.